The Beatriz Fiasco: Playing Roulette with Women’s Lives

In my last post about the inquest into Savita Halappanavar’s death, I mentioned a similar story then unfolding in Latin America: a pregnant 22-year-old woman, known in the media only as Beatriz, was five months pregnant and gravely ill, suffering from lupus and kidney failure. Allowing the pregnancy to continue would almost certainly mean her death. What’s more, Beatriz’s fetus had anencephaly, a fatal defect in which the neural tube fails to close properly and the fetus ends up without a brain. There was no chance whatsoever that it could survive.

But Beatriz had the misfortune of living in El Salvador, where the Catholic-influenced law doesn’t allow abortion under any circumstances: not for a non-viable pregnancy, not even to save the woman’s life. Pleading “I want to live“, she and her advocates took the case to El Salvador’s supreme court, asking for an exception. The court dithered for days and days, while her health steadily grew worse. Finally, in a monstrous decision, it denied her request and upheld the country’s no-exception abortion ban.

In the end, the health minister finally granted permission for Beatriz’s doctors to perform a hysterotomy – basically, an emergency C-section – at 27 weeks. El Salvador’s law classifies this as “induced birth” rather than abortion, although RH Reality Check accurately called it “an abortion by any other name”. The brainless fetus died after a few hours, as expected, and Beatriz is in stable condition and is expected to pull through.

I suppose you could call this a happy ending, or at least happier than the alternative. But it should never have come to this. Since a hysterotomy requires an abdominal incision, this means that El Salvador’s laws unnecessarily subjected Beatriz to weeks of hospitalization followed by major surgery, with all its attendant risks and complications, for the sake of a fetus that had no chance to live no matter what. What would be medically recommended in this situation is a D&E-type abortion, which has the same outcome while sparing women those pointless risks. There’s no reason whatsoever why any woman should be forced to go through this kind of ordeal.

Even when a woman’s fetus is non-viable and the pregnancy is killing her, the anti-choice position as enacted into law requires doctors to sit on their hands and wait until she’s at death’s door before they’re permitted to act. In countries like El Salvador, it doesn’t even allow them to do that much: they either have to hope that the fetus dies before the woman does, or that she hangs on until the pregnancy reaches an arbitrary threshold that allows them to classify an abortion as “induced birth”.

For all the cant about valuing motherhood and families, in practice this treats women’s lives as chips on a gambling table, something to be wagered on the spin of a roulette wheel. In cases like Savita’s, that bet lost out: by the time she was “sick enough” for the doctors to intervene, it was too late, and she died needlessly. In this case, the bet paid off – barely – in that Beatriz clung to life until her futile pregnancy was far enough along to perform an intervention that satisfied these tortured religious rationales.

But it goes without saying that we shouldn’t be gambling with anyone’s life at all! In a triage situation, which this was, you save the life that can be saved – period. The alternative is to recklessly risk the life of a conscious, living, thinking, feeling person for the sake of a non-sentient lump of tissue that can never become anything more. Any moral system that truly valued human life and well-being would reject this as abhorrent.

Image credit: Shutterstock

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Agrajag

    Agreed. These cases are no-brainers. Given the choice between saving one life, or saving zero lives, there can be no justification for choosing zero.

    I think these cases are no-brainers even when the foetus is healthy. Requiring a woman to die when she could be saved by an abortion, is grotesque and inhumane. Arguments that the foetus has the same rights to life as she does isn’t convincing, because the right to life (even if we accepted the foetus as a full human being, which I personally do not), does not include the right to a life at the cost of another. Even if you yourself are starving, you’re not allowed to murder someone else for their food – yes you’ve got the right to live. But not if your continued existence depends on someone else dying.

    The only good thing about these cases is that they raise awareness of just how hollow the slogan “pro life” is. These people will, if we let them get away with it, choose to let both mother and foetus die, rather than save the one who can be saved. That’s not consistent with “pro life”

  • Figs

    I’m not a tone troll, but I wanted to say that in this case, repeated use of “no-brainer” is a little on the nose.

  • Sven2547

    I’ve said this elsewhere, but it bears repeating:

    Notice how no Catholics are talking about this? This case is a win for them in court, yet none of the Cardinals or Archbishops, and none of the apologists or bloggers or cheerleaders or enablers are talking about it. Why? Why not proclaim their victory?

    Because even they recognize how stupid this is. They won’t dare condemn it, but they cannot escape the outlandish hypocrisy of their position: In accordance with the Catholic position that all life is sacred, this woman was sentenced to suffer and quite possibly die.

  • gimpi1

    I have always wondered at calling this movement “pro-life.” If you prefer to let both a pregnant woman and her fetus die rather than intervene and save the woman’s life in such a situation, that can hardly be called “pro-life.” I think anti-sex, anti-woman, or pro-pregnancy-is-punishment-for-women-having-sex” would be more accurate. I realize that last one is a bit long.

  • GCT

    I usually go with “anti-choice” but I agree that your suggestions are just as accurate if not more accurate – especially the last one.

  • Radi4

    I believe another term in use is “forced-birther” – covers the same ground, and gets to the heart of the matter.

  • Azkyroth

    …either that, or they haven’t finished masturbating furiously over that thought that

    this woman was sentenced to suffer and quite possibly die.

  • Agrajag

    You’re not a tone-troll, yet felt the urge to point out that I used the same expression twice ? Yeah I did.

  • Figs

    In the context of anencephaly, I meant.

  • phantomreader42

    I go with “fetus-fetishist”, because their only interest is in the fetus, not in its well-being but in using it to further their own perverse desires.

  • phantomreader42

    Hey, they’re catholic! They’re not allowed to do that! Masturbation, I mean, sadism, self-righteousness, and rape have never really been things the church has objected to.

  • phantomreader42

    I think it’s pretty telling that fetus-fetishists identify so strongly with an undeveloped parasite without a brain…

  • Albert Hasani

    The biggest shock of my life back then occurred when I was debating with
    an acquaintance who was a Catholic about this. I asked him: What do you
    prefer, a country where abortions are illegal, (but more of them happen
    anyway in secret) or a country where it is legal (but there are less
    abortions due to the use of education, condoms and the like)? Legal and
    less deaths or illegal but more deaths? YOU KNOW WHAT HE CHOSE???
    ILLEGAL AND MORE!

  • Spherix

    The obvious conclusion should therefore be that their position is fundamentally about control, and not about life.

  • RedGreenInBlue

    “Given the choice between saving one life, or saving zero lives…”

    It’s worse that that in most cases – more like: “Given the choice between saving one life, or saving zero lives and disadvantaging the woman’s other children by depriving them of a primary carer…”

    Not to mention that if the Catholic Church if were as pro-life as they claim, their dogma would prioritise a woman who could potentially go on to have several children over the non-viable pregnancy which threatened her life.

  • http://www.facebook.com/j.alex.harman John Alexander Harman

    Let’s not forget that the abortion would likely have left this young woman’s fertility intact; she could have gotten pregnant again in the future, and perhaps had a healthy child (although her having lupus and kidney failure does make that somewhat less likely). Instead, they performed an intervention that removed her entire reproductive system, leaving her sterile.

  • Sally Strange

    “Anti-choice,” or, “the Force Birth Brigade” are both accurate.

  • Jack Mudge

    Hysterotomy not Hysterectomy. These are different procedures — Hysterotomy only involves an incision in the uterus, not excising it.
    This is academic, though. Both procedures are major surgery, and here are preferred over FAR less invasive alternatives.

  • DavidMHart

    You come up against this attitude in drug policy reform as well, where, particularly with regard to opiates (heroin and related drugs), there are many public health interventions that can be made – needle exchanges, methadone handouts, safe injecting rooms, naloxone handouts to reverse overdoses, good samaritan laws that protect people reporting overdoses from arrest, prescription pharmaceutical heroin for registered addicts – all of which save lives. But they all involve not treating dependent opiate users as sub-human scum (or at least, not treating them quite as badly as other options would mandate) – and there are always objections from some people for whom punishing and stigmatising dependent opiate users is more important than reducing the actual harms caused by opiate use.

  • http://www.facebook.com/j.alex.harman John Alexander Harman

    Ah, I saw a word I’d never seen before and mistook it for a similar word I had. I wouldn’t say the distinction is academic, either, as it means Beatriz was not in fact stripped of her fertility, although it does increase the risk of complications possibly necessitating a C-section if she does get pregnant again and is able to carry the pregnancy to term.

  • Jack Mudge

    Well, I only meant that it was academic in that it doesn’t change the moral wrongness of the situation, not that the procedures were trivially distinct. ;)

  • UWIR

    Are there mechanisms in place to prosecute women who go to other jurisdictions to have an abortion? Would that not be economically viable for Beatriz?

  • GCT

    Whether there are mechanisms or not, why the hell does it matter? Why should the onus be on the woman to travel to find someplace that might perform a life-saving procedure for her? This is especially true if she’s already having complications?

  • UWIR

    You don’t understand why it matters what mechanisms they have in place to deal with people going to other jurisdiction? You’re seriously this stupid? I never said that the onus is on the woman, and given this straw man, and your blatant dishonest and incivility in the Free Speech threat, it’s clear that you have no interest in having respectful conversation.

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    My understanding is that Beatriz didn’t have a passport, and was too sick to travel even if the government had been willing to grant her one and to get it to her quickly enough for it to do any good.

    Regardless, ability to access basic medical services shouldn’t depend on your willingness and ability to travel. Many anti-choicers would be perfectly happy if the only women who could get abortions were the independently wealthy ones who didn’t have work or family responsibilities to tie them down and could freely jet off to whatever corner of the world they needed to.


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